Stunned in Sacramento

As the news gets worse for Rep. Gary Condit, even supporters wonder if he'll be raising money to pay for legal bills rather than a run for higher office.

Published July 15, 2001 12:16AM (EDT)

Thirteen years ago, a group of moderate California Assembly Democrats threatened the leadership of liberal speaker Willie Brown. Motivated by a combination of power lust, political differences and revenge, the so-called Gang of Five came within a breath of toppling the state's longest-serving speaker.

In the years since, misfortune has befallen the gang. Rusty Areias was driven into personal bankruptcy; Charles Calderon ran an abysmal campaign for state attorney general; Steve Peace was ensnarled in the electricity deregulation scandal and Jerry Eaves was indicted on charges of criminal misconduct, finally striking a deal that will keep him out of jail, but cost him his seat on the San Bernardino, Calif., Board of Supervisors.

In Sacramento, people now joke darkly about the Curse: the voodoo trickery Brown, now mayor of San Francisco, obviously cooked up to bring misfortune to his political enemies. One man seemed immune, going on to Congress in 1989, becoming a leader of the powerful conservative Blue Dog Democrats, emerging as Gov. Gray Davis' go-to guy in Congress and reportedly being groomed by Davis to succeed him in 2006. His name, of course, is Gary Condit.

Now, all over the Capitol and in the Sacramento watering holes the Gang of Five and their allies and enemies used to patronize, the talk is all Condit, all the time. Despite term limits, there are still plenty of people who remember the Modesto assemblyman who went to Congress after the Gang of Five debacle in 1989. And he still has his supporters, thanks to a mixture of loyalty, fear of crossing a powerful congressman and respect for the King of the Valleycrats, the conservative Democrats who've given the party its recent lock on the statehouse and legislature. As the media-scandal machinery ramps up, and national reporters parachute into Sacramento and Condit's central California district, among Condit supporters there is an unmistakable weariness and anger.

The scandal has even invaded Simon's, a Chinese restaurant/bar across the street from the Capitol and a favorite watering hole of legislators, lobbyists and staffers. It is a place where reporters' notepads stay closed and tape recorders are turned off. But when a Washington Post reporter came looking for stories about Condit, she announced herself to the room, and offered to listen to anybody who wanted to dish on Condit. According to sources there, no one took her offer, at least in public.

"It was unbelievable," one Condit loyalist said. "I mean, it's not like she was with the Star, offering 50 grand." The macabre joke was a reference to reports that the tabloid has sent snoops throughout Sacramento, offering the sum to any former Condit paramour willing to tell her story.

On Thursday night at Simon's, a group of people close to Condit took their usual places. Richie Ross, one of the deans of Sacramento Democrats who still offers informal advice to Condit, came to the table announcing that he had just broken his press silence on Condit, though the quotes in the next day's Sacramento Bee revealed only that Ross had advised Condit to "cooperate with police and not speak publicly."

When I told Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza, a Condit ally who many look to as a possible successor, that I was in town gathering information for a piece on Condit, he pursed his lips, and gave a slow, single shake of the head. The subject didn't come up for the rest of the night.

Given the day's events, it was understandable. Thursday felt like a turning point in the Condit story. The morning saw headlines in the Washington Post about another rumored Condit liaison with a local minister's daughter. Federal investigators widened a criminal probe of Condit for allegedly suborning perjury in the case of flight attendant Anne Marie Smith. D.C. police marshaled "cadaver dogs" to search abandoned buildings for Levy's body. And throughout the day, everyone was waiting for the inevitable National Enquirer piece on the affair to hit, which it did midafternoon, alleging Levy was pregnant when she disappeared. (Momentum shifted a little in Condit's favor Friday, when sources close to the congressman revealed he'd passed a polygraph test the police asked him to take, though they gave no details about what questions he answered.)

With each new development, and an increased media focus on Condit's early stonewalling of the investigation, the change within the Capitol was palpable. While most Condit gossip had focused on the story's political ramifications -- whether Condit would win reelection, and how the scandal might affect redistricting, or the upstart political career of Condit's son, Chad -- on Thursday people began asking whether he might actually know what happened to Chandra Levy.

By now, it is no secret that Condit has long had a reputation for womanizing, but until recently it hadn't made its way into national media. Here's what the California Journal, a normally staid Sacramento observer, reported on Condit way back in April 1988:

To many Assembly Democrats, Gary Condit seems to be two distinct people. In his conservative, rural district centered around Stanislaus and Merced counties, Condit is the solid family man, father of two; a minister's son who made good in government; a pious persuader who evokes the Lord's message to preach on family values and carry the banner of moderate, agrarian conservatism. But in Sacramento, many members said, Condit is a flamboyant party boy who uses his prestige as an assemblyman to fuel a busy social life. He is, they say, a vain and egocentric dandy who frosts his hair and wears impeccably-tailored clothes.

"Gary Condit came to Sacramento for one purpose only," groused one Democratic member. "He came here to have a good time ..."

That reputation was only enhanced by Condit's flair for the spotlight. In 1988, he had a small role in "Return of the Killer Tomatoes," co-written by fellow Gang of Fiver Steve Peace. A recent profile in the San Francisco Chronicle, which Condit posted on his own Web site, touched on his love of his hog.

"'I ride the Harley every chance I get,' Condit said sitting at his desk one wintry day in light boots and blue jeans, looking like he just pulled out of his toe clips. 'The voters seem to get me and understand me. The politicos have a more difficult time.'"

Indeed, while his popularity at home often scares off even Republican opponents (nobody from the GOP ran against Condit in 1992 or 1998), Condit has always had his fair share of enemies in Sacramento, some of whom can still be found around the Capitol. More often than not, they are fellow Democrats who bristled at Condit's brash attempt to oust Brown, and his personal hypocrisy as a conservative minister's son who backed legislation to post the Ten Commandments in public buildings and attacked President Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

One staffer I spoke to -- who knew Condit and, like the others, demanded anonymity -- said he would consistently marvel at Condit's capacity for compartmentalization. Condit, he said, seemed shockingly unaware of any possible contradiction between his call to post the Ten Commandments and his own womanizing, which would seem to violate the commandment prohibiting adultery.

"He was the ultimate 'Do as I say, not as I do' guy," the staffer said.

Now the knives are coming out. In a biting column Thursday, the Los Angeles Times' George Skelton writes:

When scandals surface, and people shake their heads in disbelief, I always recall the explanation of the late Jesse "Big Daddy" Unruh, a legendary Assembly speaker in the 1960s and later the state treasurer. Unruh mused that seemingly sensible people would get elected, move to the capital and think they had become invisible. Pampered by perks and power, they'd be lulled into the delusion that the public could see only what the politician wanted it to. Not the whoring or boozing, only the wholesome deeds and bills ...

When Condit first ran for the Assembly from the rural Modesto area in 1982, his campaign theme was: "A Good Example." Here was the son of a Baptist preacher who had married his high school sweetheart. As a local elected official, he had heroically helped sandbag a levee one night during a flood. He didn't drink or smoke. But people who recall Condit at the Capitol remember that he did chase women. He was a "good example" of Unruh's invisible man.

But Condit's defenders say he has inspired unprecedented loyalty from his staff and friends. They point to his chief of staff, Mike Lynch, who has been with Condit for nearly 20 years, several lifetimes in political terms. Condit has boosted numerous careers of people involved in Central Valley politics, and even now, those loyalists all run their future plans by Condit as a sign of respect. Despite rumors reported this week that resignations were imminent, no one from the congressman's staff has budged.

Condit has also earned the loyalty of Gov. Gray Davis, thanks to Condit's early support for Davis in the 1998 governor's race. Condit was key to helping sell Davis to the conservative Central Valley, a key battleground in the governor's race, and opened many Valley checkbooks to the Davis campaign. Condit was rewarded in kind, with many of the Congressman's allies now controlling the state's agriculture and water policies, thanks to Davis appointments. And both Condit's son and daughter have found jobs working in the Davis administration.

When Democrats controlled the House, Condit was relegated to the back bench, a conservative Democrat in a House run by liberals. But his star began to rise in 1994 with the Republican takeover, and only increased as the partisan margins in the House became closer. He has continually frustrated members of his own party, supporting welfare reform, a balanced budget amendment and tort reform -- pet Republican issues all. He was the congressional Democrat who voted against President Clinton most frequently.

Already this year, Condit backed Bush's $1.3 trillion tax cut, and Bush has made a point of courting Condit, making him among the first congressional Democrats to receive a White House invite. (Ironically, Condit lists a White House meeting on the timeline he gave to police to account for his whereabouts on the days Chandra Levy may have disappeared.) As tensions between the White House and Gray Davis grew, Condit was sought out as a possible liaison to open communications between Davis and Bush. Condit and Davis have grown so tight that people openly speculated that Davis was helping to groom Condit for his own gubernatorial bid.

Now the Levy case has changed the talk about Condit's career from "Will he ever run for governor?" to "Will he run for reelection?" Undeniably, as the tenor of the media coverage has shifted, so have attitudes about Condit's involvement with Levy's disappearance. In Friday's Sacramento Bee, Capitol Bureau Chief Amy Chance wrote: "Now, even those who until this week were sure that Condit was simply the unluckiest adulterer in the world privately say they are waiting for the police to determine what happened to Levy and whether he was involved."

With Condit's continued silence, the void has been filled by wild speculation. Even most of his allies agree that Condit may be following good legal advice by staying away from microphones, but silence may be the worst thing for him politically -- at least in the short term. And it's possible that the increasingly public speculation that Condit had a role in Levy's disappearance could actually work to Condit's advantage, his defenders say. If this becomes a murder case, and Condit is exonerated, concerns about adultery will take a back seat to relief that he had nothing to do with the killing. In fact, the press's piling on and rush to judgment could even make Condit a martyr, and gain him some backlash sympathy from voters.

Right now, that's the best case scenario for Condit -- and at Simon's, even his friends admit it isn't what they'd have hoped for the lone survivor of a political assault on Willie Brown, and the man who kept the Valley safe for Democrats. At a time when his friends would like to be out raising money for his political future, Washington's Roll Call reported this week that Condit will have a hard time paying his legal bills in the Levy case.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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